The Falcons clearly perceive cornerback as a position they needed to address. They’ve expended two second round picks into the position under Dan Quinn, and while Jalen Collins flamed out thanks to off-field issues, 2018 selection Isaiah Oliver is a probable starter. Then the Falcons went ahead and sunk two Day 3 picks into the position this year, giving them seven-plus options for 4-5 roster spots.
For all that attention, ESPN still thinks cornerback is the biggest hole on this Falcons roster.
The Falcons came into the offseason with two major goals: plug glaring holes in the defensive front seven and rebuild their offensive line. Veteran free agent Tyeler Davison and the returning Adrian Clayborn help immensely with the first of those, whereas the team spent massive amounts of draft capital on the second. That leaves cornerback as the most obvious area of uncertainty: Isaiah Oliver made only two starts in his rookie season but is now first in line to start opposite Desmond Trufant. The vital nickelback spot is a contest between a recently converted safety (Damontae Kazee), a career backup with one start in three years (Blidi Wreh-Wilson), and two developmental late-round rookies in Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller. Even if one of those players develops quickly into a worthy starter, depth in the secondary remains a clear issue. Atlanta only needs to look back a single season to see just how important that can be.
None of this analysis is necessarily unfair, but it would be fair to say I’m much more concerned about the defensive end rotation than cornerback, even so. That’s because the reasons ESPN thinks this group is in questionable shape is due to experience, and experience takes a back seat to talent at the end of the day. In my eyes, at least, talent is no longer a question here.
Start with Oliver, who endured rough stretches in his first year but also showed flashes of impressively advanced coverage skills. He has the ideal physical makeup for a Dan Quinn cornerback, more or less, and will get to play in a secondary that should have its top safeties back, which will give him a little more of a safety net to operate with. His talent is not in question, though, and if he has rough stretches it’s likely they won’t exceed the ones endured by an injured Robert Alford in 2018.
Kazee at nickelback is hardly a concern, either. We haven’t seen his coverage skills in action as a corner to this point, really, but we do know that’s an aggressive ballhawk and a physical player with the speed to make the assignment work. Again, he’ll have his struggles adjusting if he takes the role, but the talent is there.
From there, the Falcons have a savvy veteran who has played quite well in limited snaps (Blidi Wreh-Wilson), a rookie with length, tremendous speed, and a bright future (Kendall Sheffield), and a polished rookie whose biggest issue might just be his injury history (Jordan Miller). Ryan Neal is still kicking around as an emergency reserve, and the Falcons have indicated they think safety Chris Cooper can take some snaps as a nickel corner if the need arises. There’s not an elite player in the bunch unless Trufant rebounds to those heights or Oliver arrives earlier than expected, but they have youth, genuine talent and depth they didn’t have a year ago.
Perhaps ESPN’s fears will prove to be founded, given that the Falcons turned out two veterans in favor of young guys, but I think cornerback will prove to be a relative strength sooner than later. Assuming the pass rush cuts down the time they need to cover, of course.